Saturday, February 27, 2010

Joie de Vivre

"What do you do in life? En vie, as the French always ask..." Kamel, our tour guide, was probably one of the last people from my Tunisian tour group to ask me what I did for a living.

I raised my eyebrows. I'd told everybody else in our group the bits about marketing music and freelance writing, but I'd never felt like I'd properly answered the question. "What do I do? Je voyage. J'ecris. Je pense. La photographie..." Somehow talking about my travels, my personal writing, my thoughts and my photos seemed to get at the heart of me and my life more than describing what I do as an independent marketing consultant.

Ever since I quit my job over a year ago - which shattered my professional career into three or more different tracks - I've had this problem in parlor conversations. It's especially an issue in New York City - or Western society in general - where asking "What do you do?" clearly means "What do you do for a living?" But, unfortunately in my case, a living is not really living. So, except for when talking to Kamel, I've grown accustomed to answering others' questions with a question: "Do you mean what do I do to make money?"

I think it's possible that a person can make a life out of a job. You can help people every day and love it. Making a difference can make a good life. But for me, at least right now, work simply signifies a means to an end: make enough money to pay the rent, eat, and go on the next trip.

People don't really like to hear that when they're trying to make conversation. They have jobs. They must work. They focus on their careers, craft their elevator pitches, climb ladders, negotiate raises and pay insurance premiums. They miss the bus because their boss kept them late. They don suits and hoist briefcases, laptop bags. They input all the essential information about their life - their calendar, contacts and correspondences - into their Blackberries and iPhones and PDAs, all fragile digital devices that are easily dropped, broken, stolen or lost.

And one day, they don't have a job anymore. They are fired, or laid off, or eliminated, or forced to quit, and they feel as though they have no life left. How can you live when that which you do for a living simply ... disappears?

This is what I've set out to discover. What is life beyond work? What is more important than making my bosses money, collecting only a minor commission off their total wealth? What is my self-concept without the praise or "constructive criticism" of a yearly review, title changes, raises, and bonuses (or worse yet, the absence thereof)? What is the five-year-plan? Do I even need one?

What do I do?

For now, I try to live well.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Photo Essay: West Essex Rail Trail

Now that Edith is enjoying a four-day work week, we decided to make the most of her fifth day this week by exploring one of the many rail trails in New Jersey - old train tracks that have been converted into bike paths and hiking trails, many years into their disuse.

"Sneakers or hiking boots?" I asked. I remembered Edith's story of jumping into three feet of snow off the burning ACES train somewhere in Bucks County, and I thought at least a few inches of that might remain in Montclair, where we were going to pick up the trail.

Edith said she was wearing sneakers and assured me that it would be fine. It would be flat, after all.

I should have worn hiking boots.

The early afternoon sun glowed warm through the trees lining the trail, turning snow into slush and sending each of my feet out to each side of the trail, slipping wet and soft but somehow slogging forward.

the entrance

power lines

deer tracks

tree

marker

vestiges

bridge

bridge

mile stone

Three miles of trudging along snow over gravel over phantom rails and ties, we hit one unexpected hill and  didn't feel cold at all despite wind and wet feet.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Excavating the Ruins

"I've just learned that if you tell me you're going on a trip, there's got to be an abandoned town there somewhere." Maria knows me well.

I've spent most of the last two years exploring lost civilizations, both modern and ancient - following the trails of the fated pioneers lost to Death Valley, lured by gold, and living off the land in the vast wilderness of the very wild west. Whether they succumbed to the elements right there in their own home, or were driven out by floods and avian flu, or just slowly disappeared with little trace of their existence, the ghosts fascinate me.

Most of my poking around has been amidst the relics of modern culture, people who left behind mines and yacht clubs and grand estates, but that's because the United States is a pretty new country. And the original immigrants destroyed pretty much anything "ancient" that the Native American tribesmen would have built before them. Not so in the rest of the world.

One of the things that interested me about Tunisia - besides its predicted similarity to Morocco - was the promise of Roman and Phoenician ruins. Sure, I could have gone to Greece, or Pompeii, but the anachronism of the Roman empire in what we westerners think of as Africa was just too intriguing to pass up.

Carthage Carthage

Ground zero of the Roman empire in Tunisia is Carthage, the northernmost town on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, outside of modern Tunis. Carthage was actually originally founded by the Phoenicians (naming it their "New City") and proved to be a battleground through the Third Punic War, eventually destroyed by the Romans. Little evidence exists from that first colony except a few gravestones and urns.

Cato the Elder's battlecry "Delenda est Carthago" ("Carthage must be destroyed") soon transformed into Julius Caesar's declarum, "Carthage must be rebuilt," and so began the evolution of Carthage into not just one city, but a series of cities, to be overtaken later by the Vandals, the Byzantines, and, finally, the Muslims in the 7th century, building modern Tunis partially on top of old Carthage.

Carthage, just across the Mediterranean from Sicily, wasn't the only city built by the Romans and later destroyed. Farther inland, you can find a magnificent ampitheatre in El Djem...

El Djem El Djem

...the town of Sbeitla whose excavations have not yet revealed the extent of the former Roman town, many of whose Sufetula ruins lie under private housing and commercial buildings...

Sbeitla Sbeitla

...and the archaelogical site of Dougga, tucked away in what looks like the English countryside, up on a hill, where you can walk onto the theatre stage, across the forum, into temples and baths and private homes and even a brothel.

Dougga Dougga

These towns are the casualties of war, in a country that was fought over by feuding empires over the centuries that led up to and began our modern era after the supposed birth of Christ, who happens to dictate our calendar.

Like in America, the native inhabitants of Tunisia - the Berbers - were driven out of their homes by these invading empires, farther inland towards the desert, sometimes into mountainside and underground caves to escape the heat and whatever other threats that lie on the earth's surface. But even the Berbers, who made homes out of brick and mud and whatever materials they could get their hands on, couldn't withstand nature's fury, and the villagers of the mountain oases of Tamerza and Chebika fled when their homes were washed away by floods as recently as the 1960s.

Tamerza Tamerza

Chebika Chebika

Now tourists like myself drink lemonade from the terrace of a fancy hotel in Tamerza and look out over the river bed which is now dry, only 40 years after that disastrous flood.

I can't help but thinking of the building and razing and rebuilding that's happened in my own life - the emotional fortresses I built to protect myself from my enraged and manipulating parents, the smiling front I put on my face to survive teasing and questioning classmates, the flirtation and aggression that emerged so that boyfriends, colleagues, and employers wouldn't catch a glimpse of my former self, hiding in the basement from my mother's fiery wrath, writing poems and dreams in my diary with hopes that someone or something would eventually wash me away.

My existential crisis of the last two years has stripped a lot of those layers away. My artifice was torn down by force in a work situation that proved to be manipulative and retaliative. Lovers betrayed me and abandoned me. Parents ceased to exist. And so I'm starting to become reacquainted with my own original self, the ruins of which are slowly being excavated out of years of overgrowth and, maybe like much of the modern architecture facing the threat of destruction in the U.S., inappropriate repairs and additions.

I remember how much I loved French. How much I loved writing in French. Why did I not spend more time in La Maison in college?

I was a mathematical genius. What happened to that?

I used to have hope. Where has it gone?

I used to believe that someone would love me someday for who I am. I think I've given up on that altogether.

But maybe there's something inside, something deep underground or just below the surface, that can be brought into light. I guess I just have to keep digging...

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Conversations de Tunisie: Sidi Bou Said

In every touristic area of Tunisia, whether you're a man or a woman, you get heckled by various men trying to sell you their wares, practice their English with you, or guide you to some landmark in exchange for some dinars for being your tour guide. Some places are worse than others, but generally it's just a nuisance.

Unless you're a single woman walking alone.

By our last day touring Tunisia, I was really sick of men calling out to me, "Helloooo," "Eeengleeesh?"

I was wandering the streets of Sidi Bou Said, a suburb of Tunis, eating a chicken chawarma sandwich on some freshly-baked tabouna bread and taking photos of all the blue doors, with a blue Mediterranean backdrop.

I heard a man calling after me. First in Arabic, then in French. I rolled my eyes. Not again.

His calls became more urgent. "Mademoiselle, mademoiselle!"

I turned around. "QUOI?!" WHAT DO YOU WANT.

Oops, he was a police officer.

I gathered he was telling me that where I was walking was forbidden or private - in any case, interdite - and I was shocked, not having seen any signs.

"Interdite, ici?" I asked.

"Oui," he said, fortunately for me, with a smile.

"Je m'excuse..." I smiled back, and headed back up the cobblestone slope to explore more forbidden pathways undiscovered, while the sun was still shining and I could hear the roar of the sea.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Photo Essay: Sfax Souk

An early morning stroll through the market of old town Sfax, the second largest city in Tunisia:













fresh tabouna

fish market

ready for filleting

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Conversations de Tunisie

After our calèche ride through the oasis in Tozeur - during which our driver invited me to sit in the front seat of the carriage and take the reins while he spoke to me in Italian and I somehow understood - one of my tour mates noticed the poinsettia in my hair and asked me about it. I explained to her that it was a parting gift from my calèche driver.

"Oh, you seem to be getting all the Tunisian men on this trip," she said.

"Yes," I smiled, "I'm leaving a trail of broken hearts behind me as I travel across the country."

Our tour director Aileen, an Englishwoman who is partnered with a Tunisian and has been conducting tours for the last ten years, chimed in, "Tunisian men haven't got hearts."

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One Hell of a Sandstorm

Sahara camel ride

Since I was the youngest of our tour group in Tunisia, which was thirty people strong consisting of mostly English retirees, I suppose it's not surprising that I was only one of three to opt in to the camel ride excursion on Tuesday afternoon in Douz, all of us solo travelers and therefore somehow braver than the others.

Even though I'd taken a camel ride once before in Morocco, I didn't know how brave I'd have to be for this one.

Setting off on the camel was easier this time than last, perhaps because I didn't have Michelle behind me tipping to one side, and, with arms wrapped around my waist, dragging me down with her. My camel this time was smaller than the last, but lifted herself up on her hind legs and then front with considerably less effort and vocalizations. Being only at the gateway to the Sahara Desert, the terrain ahead looked relatively flat, with a light-colored sand that not only matched the fur of my camel, but also the dress in which I'd been outfitted by our tour guide Kamel. He'd insisted against the standard prison-issue black-and-white striped garb, but rather be dressed "like a princess."



After an uneventful saunter into the Sahara, past dunes not taller than me, we felt just a few raindrops before the wind kicked up and nearly blew that garb off of me.

By the time we reached the turnaround point, about a half hour into our ride, it was clear: we were in one hell of a sandstorm.



I'd experienced one before, at the riad in Morocco, which passed fleetingly but sent chairs, drinks, and t-shirts into the pool and darkened the skies as it passed. This one was more like an oncoming snowstorm, with persistent low visibility, screeching wind, and freezing temperatures that seemed to have dropped instantaneously. And it didn't just pass. It got worse as proceeded, our guide on foot and three of us atop camels, thethered together by turquoise rope strung through pierced noses.

The camels didn't resist the worsening conditions, but rather trudged on dutifully, facing the brunt of the wind without a sound. I squeezed my eyes chosed so tihgtly, keeping any new sand out but trapping all existing sand in, despite the tears running down my face. I'd slipped on my sunglasses despite the darkening hour and the setting sun, but it was no use: sand had insinuated itself into eyes, ears, nose and teeth, settling between the lips and beneath the contact lenses.

I was convinced I'd never be able to open my eyes again.

To be honest, I was disappointed to be missing the storm, as much as I could hear and feel it. I wanted to see how our guide was faring, whether other camels had succumbed to the sand, or whether our tour mates traveling en calèche had been blown over, horses run off.

I managed to get the left eye open a few times, for only a second at a time, but enough to realize we'd turned around and were on our way back. I remembered Aileen, our tour director, telling us to stay on the camel so we could see "what's beyond the dunes," and I wondered whether the sandstorm was a meteorological anomaly that occurred past a certain point, til I realized that the conditions were just as bad now at our starting point, too. (Turns out sandstorms are actually not that commonplace there, so we got quite a treat on our ride.)

Still, exhilaration forced my lips open into a smile from behind my orange headdress, letting more sand into mouth. My eyes were squinted into slits as I dismounted and tried to find the change to tip our guide 2DT, and I ran to take my contacts out at the counter as tears enveloped my face.

I think the others were glad they'd opted out of the camel ride, upon hearing our story, but I was ever so much more glad I'd gone. There's nothing like a little near-blindness to make an everyday camel ride so much more memorable.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy on St. Valentine's Day

I don't know how much I'll weigh when I get home, but I almost don't care. I feel good.

Sure, the men of Tunisia are more than appreciative of a juicy derrière and une femme with a healthy form, but when I look in the mirror, I like what I see.

I like it without penance for the brik I had for lunch more than once (a deep-fried phyllo-like pastry with a runny egg, parsley, potato, and tuna inside being irresistible not only because it's local to Tunisie, but because it's freaking delicious).

I like it even though I have spent much of my time here sitting on a coach bus, climbing a few sand dunes when the opportunity presented itself to me, and swimming laps for almost an hour amidst French and Italian tourists and a few leering Muslim men who were perhaps more curious than threatening.

My travels have evolved over the last year, placing increasingly less importance on food and more importance on land, culture, adventure, experience.

The waiter at dinner last night reminded me that it was going to be the fête de St. Valentin today, and encouraged me to start celebrating it last night. But instead of drowning myself in the Magon rouge demi boîte I was drinking, or God forbid ordering an entire bottle of red wine, I happily retired to ma chambre and look a long last look at the twinkling city lights of Tunis.

Today I fly home to New York with a stopover in Paris, the most romantic city in the world. But I'm feeling good about myself, and will enjoy my last day of traveling.

Further Reading:
Disregarding Deadlines

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Change Is Gonna Come

Sometimes places change your life. My existential crisis - which still persists - started during my long weekend in Death Valley nearly two years ago. This time last year, I spent Valentine's Day alone in Joshua Tree, which led me to returning for a month over the summer, conquering many of my fears of being alone and being outdoors, and redefining myself (somewhat anyway) as an artist.

I have that feeling about Tunisia. I'm not sure what my trip here is going to lead to, but I feel something coming. Maybe it's far off in the distance, but even after only a week here, I feel like a different person. I'm always laughing and smiling, calm, ready to get up in the morning, patient, unworried, unmarred.

It hasn't been a mind-blowing trip the way Morocco was (though I do have some spectacular photos which I'll share soon enough), but it feels like it may be a watershed moment in time in my life, however small, maybe even just as small as the dribbling waterfalls of the Grande Cascade which are way too tiny to be grand at all.

But I guess I won't know until I come back, and although I don't really want to come back, I must if I'm going to find out where this trip will lead me next.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Words Escape Me

As much as I'm alone on this trip in Tunisia, I'm not alone enough.  I've got 29 other tourists with me, always popping into frame when I'm trying to take photos, a tour director, a tour guide, and a bus driver.  I haven't felt lonely at all, especially since everyone has done a good job of chatting me up and letting me join their tables at mealtime, an experience for me too reminiscent of my first days at Frank Dining Hall at Colgate, times I look back on both fondly and anxiously. So I'm particularly happy to return to my room alone at night, silent from the questions that I've been trying to answer and the French I've been trying to speak all day.

The Tunisians' French is much better than the Moroccans', probably because it's copulsory study for them in school, but it's nearly as necessary here since there isn't much English spoken. Unfortunately, that means that the buondaries of my French have been stretched beyond "à quelle heure est petit déjeuner?" and are forced into the territory of what I do for a living; zhther this is my first trip to Afrique, where I'm going next, etc.  I feel my French words disintegrating in my mouth, before they're even spoken, and it gets worse if I've had too much Tunisian rosé.

Our tour guide asked me how it was possible that my French pronunciation is so good, being from America, and although my answer was that I'd studied French for five years, I think the real reason is that as my vocabulary has dwindled over the yars since high school, my ability at executing the core elements of communication has sharpened over time, by watching French film, ordering French food and wine, and working with French classical music. It doesnùt mean I know what I'm saying.

I haven't had much meaningful conversation since I've been here, except with our tour guide, which explains why I'd mostly rather be alone.  How do you explain to a bunch of retired English tourists your desire to move to the desert and disappear into a simpler life?  They all complain about toilets, coffee buffets, beds, sinks, pillows, feet, sun and rain, and I'm just happy to be here. It's not a perfect trip -- excursion cancellations, varying food quality -- but I really have nothing to complain about.

I haven't thought much about my life back in New York, save for when it's good for conversation.  I'd rather not think about my uncertain professional future, or my certain personal future of being alone, jamais marriée.

We only have two full days left of our tour before we leave Tunis, and I'm already looking for a reason to stay longer. Avec qui? Pour quoi - faire quelques choses avec quelqu'un? Je ne sais pas.

For now, I'm just trying to keep enjoying myself. I've had a lot of reasons to smile since I arrived.

Forgive typos on AZERTY keyboard!

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Road to Gabes

My ankles are killing me. I can't wait to get to the desert.

I'm happy also to leave behind the smog-filled sky of Sfax, due to its high production of phosphate and gas refineries and automobile assemblage. The sun fights to shine through, but the outskirts of the city (the second largest in Tunisia) are sealed in by a wooly gray blanket overhead. It's amazing that the olive, apricot, almond and pistachio trees that line the national highway can bear fruit at all. But somehow, industry and agriculture coexist here, in completely separate worlds -- fiery smokestacks piercing the sky above while nomadic workers prune and pick the trees below without aid of any machinery.

At this point in winter, though, the roadside crops look all but abandoned, only an occasional sheepherder or bedraped wandering woman breaks the monotany of the barren - yet somehow fruitful - orchards.

There are as many plastic bags along the shoulder as there are trees -- in fact, probably more, and in all hues of white, ecrue, black, and turquoise. The multi-colored bags litter the roadside, especially the beaver cactus planted as a makeshift fence, which now sprouts bright plastic cactus flowers as a precursor to their spring floral outcroppings (if there is enough rain).

We're on a long drive to Gabes, which is still on the coast, but we'll be in the desert by tonight. Although I know it's not hot there yet, I'm sure my body will start to respond immediately to the increasingly arid climate, the rocky terrain and, finally later this afternoon, the sand dunes.

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Some Sulfuric Morning



I woke up this morning again at 3 am to the smell of sulfur, unsure whether it was coming from me, the standing water in the toilet bowl, the bedsheets or the chlorine pool (fermé) outside. Once again I'd slept with the balcony door open for the cool fresh air, but with it I knew I'd get a variety of sights, smells, and sounds -- including, this morning, a bell tower ringing every quarter hour. It wasn't the sort that calls Muslims to prayer, but purely meant, I think, to tell time, telling me every 15 minutes that I was still awake.

The sky was dark, and even the city's hotels' lit signs had turned off overnight, leaving a single lunar crescent to slice open the sky as though it had leaped right off the Tunisian national flag to do so.

I think this was the first sunrise I'd seen since I left California this summer, my travel plans having been put very much on hold either because of work, or because of lack of work (and the inevitable resulting lack of money). I was happy to step barefoot out onto the marble-floored terrace, clad too scantily for public in this country but pretending to the entire expanse of the back of the hotel was my own private garden.  The pigeons that flock to the stagnant poll water were awake too, chattering about but out of sight. As the sun rose, drowning out the crescent moon, I could see the boats in the distant bay, though the outside did not smell like the sea, nor sulfur, nor moped exhaust nor baking bread. The morning was just new, and mine in my solitude.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Waking Up in Tunis

I had a good room service dinner last night of demi poulet avec légumes with some rosé from Hammamet, but I woke up at 1 am after only four hours' sleep, starving.

I spent the next five hours tossing and turning with empty arms, waiting for breakfast to come.

I really expected the included buffet to be like all the ones we ate in Morocco: French-style, consisting exclusively of hard-boiled eggs, sliced mortadella, orange cheese (or maybe a spreadable white one), tomatoes and croissant. Instead this morning I stumbled upon a breakfast that was far more Middle Eastern, with countless olives and spreads and terrines of brozn meats and roasted vegetables. Fortunately for me and my weight loss attempts (which I'm hoping to not throw out the window while I'm here), I found the hard-boiled eggs, tomato, and grapefruit, and splurged on a very un-French pistachio-dusted phyllo pastry that glistened under the overhad lights, brightening my eyes before the sun was even up.

At a nice tourist hotel like this one, a woman dining alone gets the royal treatment: the best seat in the house, not situated awkwardly in the middle of the room,with coffee service and just as much milk as you'd like while older British couples and confused Japanese tourists wander about looking for spoons and a way to quench their thirst.

Upon my last sip of caffeinated coffee (which I've taken to drinking unsweetened), I folded my napkin, and mouthed the word "parfait" ("perfect") without making a sound. I smugly looked around at the others, gathered my things and bid adieu to the maitre d' with a "très bon:"

I'm such a show-off sometimes.

Forgive typos on AZERTY keyboard!

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Happy Arrival

I've arrived safely in Tunis, easily through customs (despite the raw almonds in my bag which concerned me slightly), and gladly greeted by my tour director herself at baggage claim!

Even better, there is free internet access at the Sheraton, though I'm typing on a AZERTY keyboard instead of a QWERTY one so my blogging is slow and labored. I'm already thinking in French again. I may start writing in it since the accents are so readily available at a mere keystroke now.

The Sheraton has the same shampoo and conditioner and bar soap that I always swipe from my room when I'm in the Great Valley for QVC.

The weather -- though overcast, with a recent rainfall -- is breezy and springlike.

I am happy to be in Tunisia!

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From Paris With None

I'm starting to feel very alone. I've been relegated to the back of the plane despite Abdellah's attempts to upgrade me, and people are staring at me in my empty row. I keep visually inspecting the others' luggage for tags from my tour group, hoping to find some camaraderie. But I am alone.

Maybe that's why all the flight staff gave been speaking exclusively in French to me, and quickly as I nod in comprehension and mutter a "bonjour" or "merci" or "oui" (pronounced, of course, "oohway"). I'm happy to be mistaken for French, despite my American passport, as I have been in London and Morocco in trips past.

I'm daunted by the prospect of a day on my own in Tunis, especially when all I can desire is sleep.

I think I can cut myself a break today and rest up for the exploration that the rest of this trip has in store...

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

First Leg to Tunisia

I can't believe how anxious I was before going on this trip. And it wasn't just the impending snowstorm, which threatened to ground me -- because if I was grounded, I was meant to be grounded. But I agonized over everything, terrified to forget something, even though I forgot deodorant when i went to Morocco, and kept leaving my disposable razors in hotel shower stalls, and it was fine. I worried that my French wouldn't hold up. That I would depart on the wrong day. That I would arrive and not be greeted by a driver with a Cosmos sign, or any Cosmos tour group at all.

Of course, that could still happen. I haven't even landed in Paris yet.

The minute I arrived at JFK's Terminal 1 though, I felt much more at ease. The ticketing concourse was empty in the afternoon, with most international flights departing much later in the day. With a clear path to the Air France check-in and light luggage in tow, I made a beeline to the self-service machine, where I was immediately greeted by a male clerk who was more than willing to help me service myself.

How many times have I previously rebuked the advances of aggressive North Africans, whether it be in Leicester Square in college or by the mall in Queens? But when you're on your way to Tunisia -- alone -- just a year and a half after nearly staying behind in Morocco, you welcome the Air France employee who says, "I like you. I give you my phone number. One day, we go to Tunis together," especially when he pulls some strings to get you better seats and offers to escort you to your gate.

And greet you upon your return on Valentine's Day.

The anxiety pretty much dissipated during my conversation with Abdellah, and I happily breezed through security without having to check any of my bags. I wandered dozn the hallway past other people's gates, thumbing through magazines I wasn't going to buy and turning my nose up at the Turkish "gyros" and carb-loaded options at Panini Express. Instead, I flipped through the Air France inflight magazines at my gate, trying to read the French text but toggling to its English translation when I became befuddled.

Not so surprisingly, I slept only during the first 30 minutes of the Transatlantic flight. I can sit still for six or seven hours at a time now, like never before. But as our descent into Paris approaches, my stomach sinks again.

I think anxiety arises out of being alone, being completely responsible for your own fate. When Michelle and I went to Morocco a year and a half ago, I let her do all the work, because although I desperately needed to go on that trip, I had absolutely no mental bandwidth for the preparation of it. So I showed up blindly when I was supposed to. I spoke French when it came in handy, and I taught Michelle a couple of words and phrases. But that was the extent of my responsibility there, and to be honest, it was more showing off than taking charge.

On this trip, I must take charge...a bit. One step at a time.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Change of Scenery

I'm tired of being alone.

I'm tired of paying more than $1500/month on rent.

I'm tired of not working.

I'm tired of speaking English.

I'm tired of being the oldest person in the bar.

I need a change of scenery.

I leave for Tunisia on Saturday, with an open mind and heart. I'm afraid of feeling alone. I'm afraid of being alone. But I insisted on going alone.

It will only be nine days, but it will be away from New York City. It will be a different world, with different food, different faith, and a different language.

And maybe when I come back, I'll finally be ready for an even bigger change....

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Climb Every Mountain: An Urban Escape



I only just started hiking last summer, when I hiked a different trail every day for a month in the California high desert. Despite my lack of proper equipment and any companionship, I got pretty good at navigating the desert terrain, climbing 400 feet of elevation and finding my way out of poorly-marked or altogether-unmarked trails - skills that I applied to my exploration of New York City's trail offerings upon my return. Turns out I'm a bit of a survivalist, relishing most in flooded bridges and barefoot trail-treading, getting high on those moments after I think all is lost, when I finally discover a way in, up, or out.

I'm still pretty delicate, though.

vista

Yesterday Edith and I joined an intermediate hiking expedition offered by Urban Escapes to the West Mountain Ridgeline of Bear Mountain State Park in freezing cold weather. I'd never hiked more than, say, 90 minutes in the winter before, and I'd definitely never climbed as many as 1000 vertical feet in mountainous terrain. I was a little worried about keeping up, but the lure of visiting an abandoned mining town at the end of the hike was too strong to turn down. If the only way I could get to Doodletown, as it is called, was to hike there, then I would hike there.

I'm paying the price today, awakened by aching arms and sobered by legs buckling under me, unable to climb up into my elevated bed or walk or stand or sit. It. Was. Worth. It.

frozen path

Our trip up to Rockland County could not have been better. Bear Mountain State Park, and its neighboring Harriman State Park, is huge, with countless hiking trails and lakes and rivers and waterfalls - so much water, in fact, that our biggest obstacles during the trip were the frozen-over paths, or worse yet, the not-quite-frozen-solid areas with a thin layer of ice on top and water running beneath. The iciness made our trip a bit more circuitous, tip-toeing over rocks so as not to plunge into the freezing cold water, but it also gave us more to look at on our way to scenic overlooks, our own little secret wooded vistas of waterfalls frozen in midair, white swirls and clear shards underfoot like cracked glass.

ice

ice swirls

In my new hiking boots, my feet, ankles, and legs were not prepared for the steep climbing, the mild scrambling, or the crunch underfoot. At first, my feet were dragging, my legs stiff. I could barely lift a leg to climb up onto even a flat rock. My body is heavy. It's a lot of weight to hoist. And as I lagged behind the group, calling myself "remedial" and hyperventilating, I kept thinking, "I can't do this."

But instead of dwelling on my own physical failures, I was mostly laughing. I don't remember the last time I laughed so much. Even as Drew was telling me to take my time despite being way behind the others, or Roget literally hoisting me up a rock from behind with both hands on my posterior, or Pete letting me grip his mittened hand while I took baby steps down a steep incline, the minute I got over an obstacle and caught my breath, I was laughing again. I was smiling too much to notice that the winter sun was burning my cheeks. I was too happy to think about how sore I was going to be the next day.

I don't know what made me so hard on myself before, thinking I had to push the limits of my physical ability by myself. It's so much more fun with other people. And sometimes you need a little help.

I fell a couple of times - a couple of times more than anybody else did - but I actually got better as the hike progressed, stronger, more confident. I didn't take the outstretched hand every time it was offered to me, only when I really needed it. And I pushed the fear of falling aside, let myself fall when I was going to fall, and sat to scoot down a rock if I doubted my footing. I wasn't always the last one trailing our group on the trail.



It was a gorgeous day, and despite the low temperatures, we were warm from the sun and the strenuous climbing. We sat down for lunch at the West Mt. Shelter, where city skyscrapers loomed in the distance as we ate sandwiches and breathed in the fumes of a recently extinguished fire, which we didn't need to keep ourselves warm.

sign

For me, the piece de resistence of the hike was the walk through Doodletown, an old iron mining town that's been abandoned since the 1960s, unable to thrive in its secluded location, with the state park eventually consuming it altogether. All the houses, schools and churches have been demolished by now - even the welcome sign has been removed by vandals - so that now all that remains are a few retaining walls, building foundations, and stairs that lead to nowhere, with historical signs marking the most significant (former) locations.

foundation

We walked down the relatively flat, snow-covered asphalt of the town's main street, searching for ghosts among the long shadows we were casting, giant old oak trees looming above  us.

retaining wall w/long shadows

old oak

Although there wasn't much left to see in Doodletown, and only two or three other passers-by, it felt like a real town when we visited one of the three cemeteries, where former residents of the town are still buried. Headstones both large and tiny were eroded, tipping over, and moss-covered, but illuminated by the late afternoon light, reminding us that real people once lived here in a thriving community.





They are, indeed, gone but not forgotten.



After spending over five hours in the woods, we made a full loop back to the white trail where we'd first started in the morning, and were ready to get back in the van. After my afternoon adrenaline rush, the exhilaration was fading and my feet were weighed down again in their heavy boots, legs unloosened, lower back aching.

But my face was still squinted into a toothy grin, even though the sun's rays were no longer shining into my eyes.

We sang along to the radio on the hour-long ride back into the city, as the Magic Hour cast a pink glow on our faces (though my cheeks were already pink from the sun and wind) and the sun dipped behind the skyline of New Jersey. It was a long day, but I was sad to see it end, sad to say goodbye to our guides who'd made us so happy all day with their jokes, patience, knowledge and spirit.

Edith and I waved goodbye to them with a wink and returned to our regular New York City lives of buses and taxis and coat checks and wristbands and glasses of wine.

When I went to sleep, cuddling against my cashmere-sweatered hot water bottle, I was still thinking about the trail....

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